What is religionless Christianity? #2

In a previous post, I explained Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of “religionless Christianity” primarily in terms of its institutional structure, such as the absence of the church.  Here I try to explain the concept itself, while admitting that it still puzzles me.  Bonhoeffer elaborated the concept of religionless Christianity in the two years before his murder by Hitler’s Gestapo, and it was undeveloped at the time of his death.  I think it remains a puzzle for which we have, at best, no more than half the pieces. 

Religionless Christianity is based on “a world come of age,” which began with the Enlightenment (early eighteenth century).  Even before then, the Western world found less and less need for the “God hypothesis,” as Bonhoeffer calls it (Letters, pp 325, 360).  Every thinker from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Galileo, and every discipline from science and technology to medicine and law, created worlds with no place for God.  In some ways this is good, for in a world come of age people take responsibility for their own fates, instead of blaming God.

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Karl Barth: Did his adultery affect his theology?

Karl Barth: Did his adultery affect his theology?

Karl Barth is an interesting creature (a favorite term of his).  He led the German church’s resistance to the Nazi takeover of the Protestant church.  He was removed from his teaching position, and deported from Germany when he refused to sign the loyalty oath to Hitler.  After the war he returned to Germany, where he helped restore the church.  He was the most influential theologian of the twentieth century (though I think I’ve said this about a couple of other theologians).  Barth was on the cover of Time magazine on April 20, 1962.

God as the opposite of man

Barth is best known among theologians for his book on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and Church Dogmatics.  The latter is over six million words long, in five volumes.  It was incomplete at the time of his death.

Barth was a great critic of liberal theology, the reigning theology of the day.  Liberal theology said that the claims of Christianity must stand in continuity with the highest moral ideals of a culture.  If no continuity exists, the gospel will be morally unintelligible.  Basing Christianity solely on revelation, said Adolf von Harnack, erases the history of Israel and the church (Reader, p 56).

Barth’s opposition to liberal theology is influenced by his own historical experience.  If theology is not rooted in scripture alone, then it’s too easy to move from judging scripture by creaturely needs, as he puts it, to judging scripture by the needs  of the Führer.  It is not difficult to read the history of the German church this way, which ended up accepting a bishop approved by Hitler, and a ban on converted Jews.

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Atheism or God as other

Atheism or God as other.  My original idea for this post was to review a book defending atheism and promoting humanism.  As I said in a previous post, on some days I think I’m an agnostic, and I’m open to a good argument against theism. 

The book I chose, after looking at several, is The God Argument, by A. C. Grayling.  It is so bad it’s hardly worth reviewing.  Still, I’ll briefly summarize it before going on to explain the position shared by a number of theologians: that God is completely other.  This isn’t the term used by most theologians, but I think it captures their position.

The reason the “God is other” argument is important is because most critics of religion criticize a version of Biblical literalism, showing almost no awareness of theology. 

Grayling,The God Argument

The justifications offered by religious people for their beliefs very often turn out to be . . . rationalisations for something that is in its deepest depths is non-rational. (p 4)

Well of course religious people don’t base their arguments on reason; they base their arguments on faith.  If you don’t understand this, then you don’t understand religion.  Elsewhere Graying argues that religion hasn’t “passed the test of reason.” (pp 49-50)  But of course that’s the wrong test.

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Religionless Christianity

Religionless Christianity. (Bonhoeffer post # 2)

Religionless Christianity may seem like a contradiction.  It’s not.  Christ did not seek to establish a religion, but to speak for the oppressed and downtrodden, as well as to save our souls.  He and his first followers sought to establish communities in the midst of empire. 

The term “religionless Christianity” belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and because Bonhoeffer was murdered before he developed his ideas, it has sometimes been mistaken for something like the death of God.  Not so.

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